Stiff Shoulder Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Understand your stiff shoulder symptoms, including 7 causes & common questions.

  1. 7 Possible Stiff Shoulder Causes
  2. Real-Life Stories
  3. Stiff Shoulder FAQ
  4. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  5. Statistics
  6. Related Articles

7 Possible Stiff Shoulder Causes

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced stiff shoulder. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder)

Frozen shoulder is also called adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder. The "shoulder capsule" is the strong web of connective tissue which holds the ball joint of the upper arm inside the socket of the shoulder blade. If this connective tissue is damaged, scar tissue – or adhesions – may form and cause the shoulder capsule to become tight, painful, and inflexible.

The condition can happen if an injury to the shoulder forces it to stay immobilized while healing. Additional risk factors may be diabetes, thyroid abnormalities, and heart disease.

Symptoms include gradual worsening of the ability to move the shoulder, due to increasing pain and stiffness in the outer shoulder and upper arm.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, with simple tests to measure how far the shoulder can move, as well as imaging such as x-ray or MRI.

Treatment involves physical therapy to help restore range of motion; over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to ease pain; and sometimes cortisone injections to the shoulder joint. Surgery may be needed in some cases.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: spontaneous shoulder pain, stiff shoulder, dull, achy shoulder pain, shoulder pain that gets worse at night, difficulty moving the shoulder

Symptoms that always occur with frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder): stiff shoulder

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Rheumatoid arthritis

Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness throughout the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that is autoimmune in nature, meaning that the body's immune system which normally protects the body by att...

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Shoulder arthritis

Shoulder arthritis is inflammation of the shoulder joint, where the upper arm bone (humerus) meets the shoulder blade (scapula) and collarbone (clavicle). This inflammation can be caused by osteoarthritis or "wear-and-tear," injury to the shoulder joints, rotator cuff injuries, or r...

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Stiff Shoulder Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your stiff shoulder

Septic arthritis

Septic arthritis is also called infectious arthritis. "Arthritis" simply means inflammation of a joint. In septic arthritis, the inflammation is caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. The most common is Staphylococcus aureus or staph. These agents reach the joints either from ...

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Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is a condition which causes inflammation of the joints. In most circumstances, psoriatic arthritis presents between the ages of 30 and 50 years and occurs after the manifestation of the symptoms of psoriasis, which is a disease of the skin. Psoriatic arthritis...

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Rotator cuff tendonitis

The rotator cuff is an arrangement of muscles and tendons that holds the head of the upper arm bone within the shoulder socket. Rotator cuff tendinitis is the resulting condition when these muscles and tendons become inflamed or damaged.

The dominant symptom is a na...

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Biceps tendonitis

Biceps tendonitis is a painful inflammation of the tendon connecting the biceps muscle to the bones of the shoulder. Biceps tendonitis is usually caused by overuse, especially repetitive throwing-type motions of the arm. It can also be caused by pre-existing shoulder injuries, sudden f...

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Real-life Stories

Once your story is reviewed and approved by our editors, it will live on Buoy as a helpful resource for anyone who may be dealing with something similar. If you want to learn more, try Buoy Assistant.

FAQs About Stiff Shoulder

Here are some frequently asked questions about stiff shoulder.

Can a frozen shoulder cause a stiff neck?

Frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis, is due to thickening of the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint capsule and the collagenous tissue surrounding the joint. This leads to loss of joint volume which limits your range of motion and sleeping position. Restricted movement can lead to stiffness in the neck and back. It is important to see a physician to differentiate shoulder pain stemming from true frozen shoulder versus shoulder pain that may actually be referred pain from a problem in the neck.

Can a frozen shoulder be reversed?

In most cases, frozen shoulder is a self-limited condition, although complete resolution does not occur in many patients. Even though pain in the shoulder discourages movement, physical therapy to gently keep the shoulder moving helps prevent further adhesions from forming in the shoulder. Surgery in the shoulder to cut existing adhesions, called capsular release, is a procedure that theoretically has the maximum benefit for a frozen shoulder. However, observational studies thus far have shown that surgery has no increased benefit on reversing frozen shoulder over conservative management such as physical therapy and steroid injections.

Can stress cause a stiff shoulder?

Stress can cause increased tension in the shoulder and neck muscles causing stiffness and pain.

Is there a difference between a stiff shoulder and a frozen shoulder?

Stiff shoulder is a broad term with many etiologies, of which frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis) is one specific cause that is characterized by the gradual onset of a painful shoulder with significantly restricted passive and active range of motion. Other causes of stiff shoulder that are more common and must be considered include rotator cuff tendinopathy, osteoarthritis, and biceps tendinopathy.

Why is my shoulder stiff when I'm sleeping?

Shoulder pain and stiffness that occurs or worsens at night is usually secondary to degeneration or inflammation of the rotator cuff muscles. Sleeping on the same side repeatedly or for a prolonged amount of time aggravates the shoulder bursa (space surrounding the shoulder joint) and/or rotator cuff muscles leading to inflammation and subsequent pain and stiffness.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Stiff Shoulder

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • How would you explain the cause of your shoulder pain?
  • Do you have a history of heart disease?
  • Can you fully move your shoulders around?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Stiff Shoulder Symptom Checker

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Stiff Shoulder Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced stiff shoulder have also experienced:

  • 26% Pain In One Shoulder
  • 6% Shoulder Pain
  • 3% Pain In One Arm

People who have experienced stiff shoulder were most often matched with:

  • 33% Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis Of The Shoulder)
  • 33% Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • 33% Shoulder Arthritis

People who have experienced stiff shoulder had symptoms persist for:

  • 36% Over a month
  • 23% Less than a week
  • 21% Less than a day

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Stiff Shoulder Symptom Checker

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